The Myanmar crisis may be ASEAN’s biggest test. Is there a role for Australia?
11 Nov 2021| and

The Myanmar crisis and its fallout have become one of the greatest tests for ASEAN in its history. Doubts about the group’s relevance, credibility and utility have arisen over the past decade, largely because of its ineffective reaction to many regional challenges. But its unedifying response to the Myanmar crisis is amplifying those doubts and exposing the shortcomings of ‘the ASEAN way’. Ultimately, this is not in Australia’s interests and Canberra should be doing more to advance and protect them.

While the military coup in Myanmar wasn’t the first for an ASEAN state, never before has ASEAN faced a non-compliant member that not only blatantly disregards its decisions but cites the ASEAN charter against it. This was a consequence of the group’s decision to disinvite the junta’s leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, from last month’s ASEAN summits because of his regime’s lack of progress and cooperation in stabilising the country and ceasing violence. ASEAN offered ‘non-political representation’ instead, but Min Aung Hlaing condemned the move as a violation of ASEAN’s consensus principle and Myanmar was not represented at the virtual summits.

As a result, ASEAN has become a group of nine, instead of 10, functional members—for the first time in its history—and the question that follows is: what’s next for ASEAN?

While Myanmar’s effective informal suspension from ASEAN ensured the association escaped the condemnation that would have come with permitting the junta to be represented, it hasn’t stopped criticism of ASEAN’s perceived ineffectiveness and ineptitude. These problems stem mainly from ASEAN’s inadequate crisis-management mechanisms and its charter’s lack of enforcement tools. Grounded in principles of non-interference and consensus-only decision-making, ‘the ASEAN way’ relies on diplomacy, dialogue and goodwill. It loses its way when these facets are missing, as the junta’s recalcitrance has shown.

The Myanmar crisis has also exposed divisions within the group. These are not new. They arise naturally from the member states’ differing national interests and ideological bases, which recent events—and the need for ASEAN to respond to them—have brought into stark relief. Developments in Myanmar have highlighted not just the diverse interests of ASEAN nations vis-à-vis Myanmar but also the different views among them on such values as liberal democracy and human rights.

A new ASPI report, released today, recounts and assesses the security situation in Myanmar, ASEAN’s collective response and the individual roles of key ASEAN member states in the mediation process. It focuses on the crisis’s effect on ASEAN’s political and security circumstances and highlights Indonesia’s leadership, and its limitations, in the process. As arguably Southeast Asia’s most democratic polity and the state most responsible for injecting notions of democracy into ASEAN’s charter, Indonesia has tried to engineer an acceptable resolution through ASEAN. But its own adherence to ASEAN’s foundational principles of non-interference and consensus have constrained its efforts.

The report also examines the ASEAN charter as a legal and policy instrument, highlighting its inherent complications and their impact on ASEAN’s capacity to ensure members uphold the rule of law and practise the principles codified in the document.

The report concludes that the most likely outcomes of the current situation in Myanmar are an entrenched Tatmadaw regime or worsening violence and the risk of all-out civil war, and considers the implications for the wider region, especially Australia. The more the generals’ brutality destabilises Myanmar and its neighbourhood, the more those developments conflict with Australia’s (and ASEAN members’) interest in a stable ASEAN focused on common economic, social and political goals, and whose ‘unity in diversity’ isn’t facing an acute risk of fracturing. As Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne has said, ‘The political stability of ASEAN member states is essential to achieving our vision for a secure, peaceful, prosperous and open Indo-Pacific region with ASEAN at its centre.’

The coup has also disrupted a part of Australia’s own plans to play a greater role in the region. One of the ways that Canberra intended to do so was by means of a package of assistance to Southeast Asia worth more than $500 million that was announced at the East Asia Summit in November 2020. Along with pledges to supply Covid-19 vaccine doses to Southeast Asia, this represents Australia’s largest funding commitment to the region since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

If effecting change in Myanmar is proving to be beyond ASEAN’s capacity, it is certainly well beyond Australia’s. If the bleaker scenarios for Myanmar over the coming decade eventuate, Canberra will have no choice but to engage with the regime to protect and advance Australia’s security interests, including on countering the illicit drug trade.

Above all, as a regional middle power, Australia retains an interest in seeing the Indo-Pacific’s future determined as much as possible through diplomacy rather than the simple exercise of power. Only a functional and responsive ASEAN can warrant its much-vaunted centrality. Since Australia retains an interest in an ASEAN fit for the role it has assumed as the region’s central actor, it is incumbent on Canberra to do all it can to help make this happen, especially in an era of great-power politics.

Fortuitously, recent events afford new opportunities for doing so. At the recent summits, Australia’s relations with ASEAN were elevated to a comprehensive strategic partnership. If this status is to mean anything beyond rhetoric, the Australian government should use it to undertake more intensive and sustained diplomacy with key ASEAN partners towards helping them change ASEAN’s direction.

Specifically, Australia should actively encourage and support ASEAN to initiate reforms, including in its decision-making mechanisms. The government should aim to reassure interlocutors that Australia values the role an effective ASEAN can play in mediating great-power tensions while encouraging it to heed internal calls for change so that it can perform that role more compellingly. For many ASEAN partners, such forthrightness in urging the association to make its own adjustments towards hard-edged reality so that it can perform the role that ideally it should do would likely ring truer than formulaic blandishments about ASEAN’s centrality.